Art Nerd: Thinking about the Church of the Nativity

I realize that since school began that I’ve fallen a bit out of the blogosphere.  Even though I quit one of jobs, which should consequentially mean more free time, I find myself becoming absorbed in reading for hours on end either at my apartment, on campus, or in New Wave Coffee on Milwaukee.  Yes, I realize now that taking three art history courses amongst two other text-heavy classes was probably what most would call a mistake of sorts.  But there are benefits to sitting in Lincoln Park with my nose so far into an academic journal that I do not notice the hoards of my peers streaming in and out of class and go about their lives all day.  Like what?  Well I get to learn the crazy mysteries of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, for one.

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

For the last week I shirked the rest of my responsibilities to read and ponder and bang my head against my keyboard about the column paintings in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  The basilica itself was originally built by Constantine and/or Helena in the early 4th century, but Justinian altered and restored it after it was partially damaged in the early 6th.  Come the 12th century and the close of the first Crusader period when the Franks controlled the Levant, the Church of the Nativity (called so because, you guessed it, the basilica’s built over the very spot where Jesus was born) became a very important destination for Christian pilgrims.  And thus between the period of 1130 and when the city was taken by Saladin in 1187, 29 saints were painted on 27 of the 44 columns off the central nave of the church (see the plan below).

Plan of the Church of the Nativity

There are a few things that make these column paintings pretty damn cool.  For one, the technique of painting the saints is peculiar to the Church of the Nativity.  Like, no where else in the entire world do we find this type of style where the artists (who remain unknown, one of the daunting mysteries of these things) paint with oil directly on marble, perhaps mixed with a type of wax or something.  Unheard of! And pretty wicked that some remain so well in tact (okay, fine, some are almost completely eroded, like the Marina/Margaret II, but still).

Also we get this blatant mix of Eastern and Western visual culture.  Although it’s debated that these representations were done by Western artists, the iconography is nearly 100% Byzantine imbued with Western symbols (like the Lilies on soldier saint shields, the ermine fur on the otherwise Byzantine tunics of the Holy Kings, and the seashell of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrims in the column with St. James).  The blending is kind of mind-boggling and my-brain-exploded type awesome.

Another really interesting component of these paintings is that we get four different representations of Mary, all of which depict her in her human, maternal modes.  In a Galaktotrophusa (also called the “suckling Mary” or “The Milk-giving Mary”) show Mary offering her breast to feed baby Jesus where she literally holds her bare breast in her hand.  Pretty racy for mid-twelfth century if you ask me, or anyone.

I was not shitting you.

I was not shitting you.

But really the reason we spend so much time thinking and talking about these paintings is that we have no way of knowing whether or not there was some overarching decorative plan for the selection and placement of them or if their development was more organic, with wealthy pilgrim patrons making their mark on the church while they could.  (The depiction of Saint Fusca is a prime example of this, considering she is only worshipped in the area of Venice and really has no broader connections to either the East or West.)

f1IOt Church-of-the-Holy-Nativity-631

Were the ascetics, apostles, females, soldiers, kings all separated in groups according to some hierarchical plan? Very debatable.  Some of the farfetched groupings of saints and the vast origins of all these saints calls the comprehensive plan theory into question.  And with these questions inevitably spring up the others of, “Who made these?” “Who commissioned them?” “Why are they painted where they are painted?”  All of which can never be fully affirmed and make the discussion of such an important Christian site all the more fun and infuriating! The joys of studying ancient art, y’all.

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